Session end in sight

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As the final weeks of the 2017 Session wind down, legislative changes are moving quickly through both the House and Senate.    Several items of interest to our area include changes to education legislation and increased tools for rural infrastructure and telecommunications.  Two education bills most likely to impact our district are the Senate miscellaneous education bill S.130 and the Senate bill providing increased flexibility for achieving the goals of Act 46.  Rep. Gannon and I have proposed amendments to each.  Notable aspects of S.130  include:

  • the creation of an Approved Independent Schools Study Committee to consider and make recommendations on the criteria to be used by the State Board of Education for the approval of an independent school,
  • moves assessment of Vermont public schools by Secretary from every two years to annually 
  • House Education committee has added a weighting study which has to do with how the equalized number of students are calculated for each district.

We will propose an amendment to the weighting study that would do two things – first it would require the work be done by those who have the technical knowledge to make assessments about the current weighting system: Agency of Education, Joint Fiscal Office and the Office of Legislative Council.   Second, consideration of an additional population density weighting would require utilizing research being conducted nationally by research and education intuitions.

Notable aspects of S.122 are flexibility in the creation of side-by-side districts, an extension on alternative structure proposals to six months after the Agency of Education has finalized the rules, decreasing the minimum number of students in a districts from 1100-900 and requiring the State board of education to list what districts it considers geographically isolated by September 30th of this year.  Rep. Gannon and I have worked with a number of legislators from five other joint or union school districts which came together in advance of Act 46 through either joint contracts or by becoming union districts but lost their small schools grants as a part of the process.  In our area this includes Whitingham and in our neighboring supervisory union this also includes Brookline and Newfane.  The other districts are Rupert, Bridgewater, Elmore, Fairlee, Pomfret, Vershire and East Fairlee.  These districts are being asked to further comply with Act 46 despite their purposeful merger actions prior to the state mandaes included in Act 46.  Small school grant eligible districts that merge under Act 46 are able to keep their small schools grants as incentives.  We are asking for these 10 districts to be afforded the same incentive if they take the further steps necessary to comply with Act 46.

In addition to these contemplated pieces of education legislation, Governor Scott has made a proposal to take advantage of a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a statewide spending cut.  As a result of the Affordable Care Act or “Obama care”, all teachers in the state of Vermont are about to see a change in the healthcare plans available to them.  The Governor has proposed that Vermont take this unique opportunity to have healthcare benefits for teachers negotiated at the state level.  The purported annual savings are 26 million dollars a year.  The Vermont School Boards Association and Superintendents Association have both offered support for this proposal.  It is virtually impossible to propose statewide cost cutting measures in education that don’t produce wide varieties of impacts for students and learning opportunities.  This proposal is one of the first I can recall.  Impacts from this proposal would include teachers unions having to bargain locally and as a statewide unit.  The savings this proposal might produce are currently being considered as part of a means to increase funding for higher education and childcare.

There are a number of very important votes coming up.  In Wardsboro there will be a revote on the Act 46 merger with Dover and Marlboro on May 1st 2017.  In Windham Southwest Supervisory union all districts will be voting on Act 46 proposals on May 31st.

Representatives Chip Conquest (D‐Newbury) and I introduced House bill H.459 which provides a process for creating flexible, inter‐municipal districts that may finance, build, acquire, own, and operate community‐based infrastructure to enhance local economic opportunities. These are known as REDI (Rural Economic Development Infrastructure) districts.

Originally conceived as a better way to obtain financing for high‐speed broadband networks in areas too small or too fragmented to consider forming communications union districts enabled in Act 411, it is apparent that REDIs may also be used for other economic development projects in agriculture, local food systems, alternative energy, and other sectors.  This language has been incorporated into S.135 which is an omnibus economic development bill.  We are hopeful for passage this year.

The legislature appear to be on track for a May 6th adjournment.  Thank you to all who have reached on to communicate on issues regarding domestic violence, marijuana, and automobile inspections.  Please stay in touch!  My cell phone number is 802-384-0233 and my email is lhsibilia@gmail.com.  I am posting updates on other legislative actions we are taking at http://www.laurasibiliavt.com.

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State Board hearing on independent schools, updates on Act 46 and telecommunications

5988599The State Board of Education is holding a public meeting this Monday December 12th (tomorrow!)  at 6PM at the Riley Center at Burr & Burton Academy in Manchester. The purpose of the hearing is to give the public an opportunity to comment on the proposed amendments to the approval of independent schools. I will be attending this hearing as will my fellow Deerfield Valley representative Rep. Ann Manwaring and her successor Rep-elect John Gannon.

If you are unable to attend and provide comment, it is possible to provide comment to the State Board of Education for review at: SBE.PublicComment@vermont.gov ;  specify “SBE Rule 2200 Series” in the subject line of the email.

State Board of Education Chair Stephan Morse issued a statement about the proposed rule changes in late November.

Bennington County Senators Dick Sears and Brian Campion recently addressed the controversy

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ACT 46 Update – Wardsboro, Dover, Marlboro

Click here to read the full 30-page Report & Articles of Agreement prepared by the Act 46 Elementary Study Committee for Dover, Marlboro and Wardsboro.  Instructions for HOW TO COMMENT.

Next Meeting:
January 5th, 2017, Marlboro Elementary School, 6:30pm. Open Public Meeting. Agenda to follow.
Time to decide! Over the next several weeks the Committee Members are scheduling six public information sessions to give voters many opportunities to discuss what will be on the ballot when they go to vote in March, 2017 at Town Meeting Day. Voters, parents of school children, and interested residents may go to any of these meetings in any of these towns. The meetings will help voters understand what happens if the articles are approved and what happens if they are not.  The schedule is as follows:
  • January 12  6:30pm – 8pm Marlboro Elementary School
  • January 19  6:30pm – 8pm  Dover Town Hall
  • January 23  6:30pm – 8pm  Wardsboro Town Hall
  • February 2  6:30pm – 8pm Wardsboro Town Hall
  • February 13 6:30pm – 8pm Marlboro Elementary School
  • February 27 6:30pm – 8pm Dover Town Hall

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  Legislative Briefing  

All members of the Legislature were able to attend a one day pre-session briefing regarding the economic outlook, revenue projections, All-Payer model for health care, and implementation of the Clean Water Act.

The most serious issue continuing to plague our state are our demographics.  Vermont has the lowest birth rate in the country.  We have also seen a steady decrease in the prime child bearing age population.  The most significant effects of this can be seen in our declining student population and in the unfilled demand for professional and skilled workers our employers are experiencing. Look for private and public measures at the state level and in the Southern Vermont Zone to begin to directly address reversing population loss and employer recruitment. This is not a Vermont specific problem, but a rural America problem. For those who may be interested in the broader context of this challenge this is a great read with a lot of data. America: This Is Your Future

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Telecommunications:  There is a lot happening right now with phone and internet service across Vermont and our district.  As you may have read, Fairpoint is being sold to Consolidated Communications out of Illinois.  Fairpoint is down to about 1/3 of the landline phone customers it had when it first purchased Vermont’s landlines from Verizon.   The purchase will require the Public Service Board to issue a Certificate of Public Good which will take some time.  Important questions likely to be asked during that process include the new companies experience running 911 systems, what happens to Vermonters currently employed by Fairpoint, and what the new companies plans are with regard to broadband improvements/expansion.  In related news, the Public Service board has recently issued a decision in a nine year old open docket regarding Comcast and their VOIP (voice over IP) service.  Traditional telephone service is subject to quality regulation by the Department of Public Service.  VOIP has NOT been subjected to that same regulation, but appears that the Public Service Board believes they should be.  

In federal telecom grant related matters, reports from Whitingham indicate a number of new residents are able to access the VTel Wireless Internet service, funded by VTel’s $100M+ federal funded stimulus award in 2009.  Good news.  Unfortunately this is still not so in Readsboro, parts of Wardsboro, Dover and Searsburg.  Expect to hear more on this issue in the very near future.  Locally, I have also received complaints about another federally funded project, intended to provide cell service in towns isolated during T.S. Irene,  Obviously there is work to do, but I am encouraged by the organizing and planning happening on the ground here.  Recently we have seen those local efforts result in a planned wireless internet expansion in Readsboro. I look forward to continuing to work on these issues with our towns during the upcoming Legislative Session.

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Great southern Vermont resource developed and managed by locals:   Searsburg/Woodford Road Conditions  This is a Facebook page where eyewitness reports, videos and current conditions reporting are available for those who need to travel Route 9 between Wilmington and Bennington.  Highly recommended!

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As always, if you need help or assistance don’t hesitate to call me at 384-0233 or email at lhsibilia@gmail.com.